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The Evolutionist    by Avi J. Sirlin order for
by Avi J. Sirlin
Order:  USA  Can
Aurora Metro, 2014 (2014)
Softcover, e-Book
* *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

During the nineteenth century there were many men who were interested in looking for the new wildlife that existed in the jungles of South America and Asia. Alfred Russel Wallace, who was a self-taught British naturalist, was one of these dauntless explorers. In spite of a deep fear of crossing the ocean, he traveled to the Amazon at the age of 25 with his friend Henry Bates in 1848.

Wallace was interested primarily in the animals and birds that he collected there, while his friend concentrated on beetles, and though they became estranged for a time, they renewed their friendship later in life. Wallace became adept at preserving the skins of the biological and botanical specimens that he collected, which he hoped to sell back home in England. His attempts to send his collection ahead of his return failed though, and the ship that he found to take them with him caught fire in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, destroying almost everything.

Already uncomfortable in a boat, and not completely recovered from the fever that he had suffered in the Amazon, he was sure he was going to die during the ten horrible days he spent with the crew in a lifeboat before being rescued. He arrived in London poor, sick, and afraid to repeat his explorations even though he found that without his collected specimens, his proof, he was not believed or welcomed by the scientific community.

After two years, however, he journeyed to the Malay Archipelago, now in Indonesia, and spent the next eight years walking and canoeing with native helpers through uncharted territory where no Europeans had been before. He collected and sent home thousands of animal and bird skins, receiving payment for them that allowed him to afford to hire helpers, particularly one teenager who became essential to him.

Wallace learned to respect the native people. He was an extremely intelligent man who became convinced that different diets and environments were responsible for changes in the animals, birds, and insects that he gathered during his extensive travels. He contacted Darwin by letter with his theory of evolution by natural selection and was given credit with Darwin for this discovery. However, after he returned to England, he was never able to obtain a salaried position as a scientist.

Wallace is not depicted as a likeable man in The Evolutionist. Although one feels sympathy for him during his great struggles and misfortunes, his feelings of entitlement cause him to alienate many people who might have helped him had he been more socially adept. He seemed to be happier traveling about in the jungle with his young helper than back among his civilized cohorts in London. Although I found this to be an interesting book, I'd have enjoyed it more had I liked Wallace.

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